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The ethics of citations

Published by Ioana Liuta

This blog post was written by Joe Wright, SFU Library co-op student

Citations: Often the least favourite, last minute part of the writing process, intended to uphold academic integrity by giving proper credit and allow readers to validate your work. However, as important as it is to prevent plagiarism, other ethical considerations involved in citing are often neglected.

Citations are a significant signal of whose work is valued and respected, as well as the reputation of authors and institutions. Citations can even decide career trajectories, opening (or closing) doors to further opportunities for authors, by influencing the reach of knowledge and recognition of contributions to research.

Citation circles

The academic world consists of citation patterns that exhibit clear bias, creating a cycle of ‘trusted’ voices that creates barriers to recognition of the research of marginalized groups, whether that be based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, or class.

Many of the foundational works in the humanities and social sciences were written at a time when the voices of White men dominated public platforms, due to the exclusion of marginalized groups from the resources, education, and recognition required to have their own voices and works heard. Studies have shown that these biases have persisted in the citation patterns of these disciplines, such as law, anthropology, and philosophy.

However, this form of exclusion is not limited to any specific set of disciplines. Dworkin et al. (2020) analyzed reference lists from five top neuroscience journals, finding that, when accounting for the relative number of articles from each group, articles where men are listed as the first or last author were cited 11.6% more than expected, while articles with women listed as the first or last author were cited 30.2% less than expected.

Furthermore, Chakravartty et al. (2018), analysed 12 different journals over a decade in the field of communication studies, and found that BIPOC scholars remain underrepresented in publishing and citation rates, and were less likely to hold editorial positions. When BIPOC scholars are under-represented in positions such as editors or reviewers, their research must effectively pass through White gatekeepers before being published.

Ginther et al. (2018) analysed US National Institute of Health research awards applications and were able to show that when compared to White applicants, Black applicants’ papers were cited less, and appeared in journals with lower impact factors. The result of this inequality of bibliometrics contributed significantly to their ability to access funding in the form of research grants.

Despite this inequality in funding, a study by Hofstra et al. (2020) found that US doctoral recipients from marginalized groups produce higher rates of scientific novelty, yet their contributions are less likely to be recognised and valued by other scholars, and less likely to result in successful scientific careers.

When we regard citation metrics simply as a measure of how valuable or influential a work is, without considering their context, we are reinforcing these historical inequalities.

Impact on your work

We all have a part to play in this. It’s not hard to see how putting some consideration into the authors we represent in our own work is important. Your reference list reflects what/who influenced your thinking. If your work only cites white, male voices, then surely you are only repeating the views and knowledge of those voices.

Kelly Baker, editor of the practitioner’s newsletter: Women in Higher Education, explains how citations can either reproduce inequalities, or function as a “powerful corrective” to work against inequality. While writing about her own experience being excluded from a reference list, she explains that “our citations tell what and who matters to us. They reveal our politics, sometimes unknowingly, to those who encounter our work.”

How to be more citation conscious

Hopefully this blog post has encouraged you to be mindful of incorporating work by marginalized groups in your citations, but it wouldn’t be complete without including some guidance about how to go about doing that.

One strategy is to try different methods for researching and finding resources. Relying solely on foundational texts and citation chaining (i.e. researching from another paper’s reference list) can perpetuate these cycles of exclusion or magnify bias.

The Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative has created a guide where you can learn more about the issue, as well as including a list of initiatives and databases by subject that are focused on increasing the visibility of women and BIPOC scientists. This guide also addresses common concerns about countering citation bias, such as the claim that most of the research in their field is done by White men:

  • Are your research methods (such as citation chaining) restricting your scope to the biases that those methods perpetuate?
  • Does your research network need to be expanded so that you can be exposed to research by marginalized groups?
  • Perhaps there are no BIPOC scientists working on your particular subspeciality, but have you looked for works that pertain to your field in general and can be incorporated as background?

On a larger scale, Chakravartty et al. (2018) suggest that to address structures of power instilled within knowledge production, we should be “embedding race- and gender-focused scholarship in course syllabi, PhD exams, required reading lists, and pedagogic practice” (p. 261). According to Mott & Cockayne (2017), this practice can not only increase the recognition of authors from marginalized groups, but create a practice of ‘conscientious engagement’ with whom and how we cite. This consists of a feminist and anti-racist resistance to citation bias, addressing the resulting undervaluing and underrecognition of contributions from these groups.

Within SFU, the Indigenous Curriculum Resource Centre has created an incredibly useful guide highlighting Indigenous voices. The guide lists several sources to find journals, organizations, social media, blogs, and podcasts that contain the work of Indgenous authors. The guide also links to several resources to learn more about citation ethics.

All of this shows that no matter what level of research you might be at, whether publishing to a journal or submitting an assignment, you can choose to contribute to this multidisciplinary practice of resisting citation bias. To continue learning about citation ethics, and the various movements and tools that have been created to combat citation inequality, check out this recent article in Nature (Kwon, 2022).


Baker, K. J. (2019, September 30). Citation Matters. Women in Higher Education.

Chakravartty, P., Kuo, R., Grubbs, V., & McIlwain, C. (2018). #CommunicationSoWhite. Journal of Communication, 68(2), 254–266.

Dworkin, J. D., Linn, K. A., Teich, E. G., Zurn, P., Shinohara, R. T., & Bassett, D. S. (2020). The extent and drivers of gender imbalance in neuroscience reference lists. Nature Neuroscience, 23(8), 918–926. 

Edwards, A. (2021). Finding Indigenous voices: Approaches for discovering Indigenous scholars and authors. SFU Library.

Ginther, D. K., Basner, J., Jensen, U., Schnell, J., Kington, R., & Schaffer, W. T. (2018). Publications as predictors of racial and ethnic differences in NIH research awards. PLOS ONE, 13(11), e0205929.

Hofstra, B., Kulkarni, V. V., Munoz-Najar Galvez, S., He, B., Jurafsky, D., & McFarland, D. A. (2020). The Diversity–Innovation Paradox in Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(17), 9284–9291.

Kwon, D. (2022). The rise of citational justice: How scholars are making references fairer. Nature, 603(7902), 568–571. 

Mott, C., & Cockayne, D. (2017). Citation matters: Mobilizing the politics of citation toward a practice of ‘conscientious engagement’. Gender, Place & Culture, 24(7), 954–973.

Ray, V. (2018, April 27). The racial politics of citation. Inside Higher Ed.

Shih, R. M. (n.d.). Citation guide for inclusivity. The Rockefeller Inclusive Science Initiative. Retrieved 11 March 2022, from